After returning from a four-year hiatus, most shows want to “wow” their audience with something big: a shocking revelation about a main character, allude to a possible death, or present the emergence of some bigger, badder villain. Most shows, after all, abide by formulas that are designed to stretch our attention across an entire season of television. To their credit, we wouldn’t watch most shows if there weren’t something intrinsically satisfying about their formulaic structure. But ‘Atlanta’ isn’t most shows. And Donald Glover is not most people.
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Our first taste of ‘Atlanta’ in four years looks different but is still the same delicious flavor: in the form of an unexpected, surreal anthology that makes you laugh while you squirm in your seat. The critically acclaimed FX series returned to television on March 23rd, 2022 in a two-episode debut, except in typical ‘Atlanta’ fashion, not in the way we expect. Before our reunion with Paper Boi and the gang in episode two, we dream of a haunted lake.
Without spoiling what is undoubtedly one of the best episodes of the series, we meet a pair of fishermen on that haunted lake, a boy named Loquareeous (Christopher Farrar), and a pungent lesbian couple with their family of adopted Black children. If that immediately conjures images of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, just wait till the costume design in the gardening scene (LaKieth Stanfield would be proud…or scared).
“Three Slaps” moves at that familiar, somnolent pace that is uniquely ‘Atlanta.’ For that, you can credit Glover’s brother, Stephen, who wrote the episode, based on tragic true events. Accompanied by strong performances led by Farrar with Jamie Neumann and Laura Dreyfuss supporting, Murai and the Glovers complete a beautifully crafted vignette that works both as a standalone story and the finest thematic addition to the show’s world to date.
We finally catch up on Paper Boi’s European tour in “Sinterklaas Is Coming to Town,” The episode centers around two parallel storylines: one follows the difficulty Earn (Glover) and Alfred’s (Brian Tyree Henry) upcoming involving the Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet’s blackface, while the other follows Van and Darius, played by Zazie Beetz and LaKieth Stanfield respectively, on an adventure to the crumpled address they discover in a coat pocket. “Sinterklaas” reminds us just how capable each actor is in their own respect. Henry pulls off the successful rapper machismo without a second thought, all the while imbuing his performance with humanity that we can’t help but relate to. And of course, Stanfield shines through as the stoner-philosopher king Darius, whose laidback absurdity somehow always manages to catch you off guard.
Neither of these episodes could reach the height they do without longtime director Hiro Murai. Murai punctuates both episodes with his signature wide shots that give the show its atmosphere. No matter which genre gymnastics ‘Atlanta’ is doing — horror, comedy, drama — there’s somehow always a distance between us and what’s unfolding before the camera. Murai allows viewers to take a more active role, opting for longer, slower takes than usual quick-cut editing. In doing this, we as viewers actively join the world with its characters.
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Murai, with award-winning cinematographer Brian Sprenger, handles the social issues of the show with the same cautious distance. Careful not to engage in bluster or culture war, ‘Atlanta’ instead finds ways to address the Black experience indirectly, or if directly, through humor. If it sounds like a cop-out, it isn’t. ‘Atlanta’ simply refuses to add to the noise. The best example of this is in episode two, when Alfred beds two Dutch women, one white, and one black, who begin arguing over the white girl’s repetition of the N-word. As their argument turns violent, we remain trained on Paper Boi, arms splayed above him from a moment ago’s pleasure, as the two women wrestle off camera.
Hilariously, he makes it clear: he’s not getting involved even though off-screen, all hell is breaking loose. Like its characters, ‘Atlanta’ is a wry observer of the culture wars around them, refusing to even depict the chaos it can unleash. In a time where everyone is constantly voicing their opinions, ‘Atlanta’ often highlights the moments of chosen silence and non-action. Especially when it comes to race and other social issues.
Whether we’re looking at Loquareeous or Paper Boi, Murai and Sprenger ask the viewer to pay attention to where the real story is: on the periphery of conflict, with a little bit of cushion for common decency. Shots like these are when the show is at its very best, and its cast of outsiders shines through, especially Darius.
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DARIUS AND THE WORLD
Darius is the crown jewel of ‘Atlanta,’ due in large part to Stanfield’s performance, but also because he is emblematic of the show’s essence. Throughout the three seasons, Darius is always adjacent to the frenzied pursuit of success that characterizes Earn and Al, yet, uninterested. He’s aloof to societal norms, but he’s deeply connected to life. Darius lives on the periphery of the action seemingly in a drug-induced daze, but as we come to understand him more, he’s intimately involved in his own version of life, his own world.
‘Atlanta’ occupies the “Darius” position in television. While everyone else is pulling gimmick after gimmick just to stretch into another season, ‘Atlanta’ is humming its own tune. Like Darius, it’s unexpected, sometimes uncomfortable, and unconcerned with industry norms. Rather than churn out content, Glover and the creative team prefer to take their time and say something only they could say. If it takes four years to do, it’s no problem. Like Darius, ‘Atlanta’ lives in its own world and beckons you to join with every scene.
The world. Why should we care about the “world” of ‘Atlanta?’
Well, the world of ‘Atlanta’ is the show — just ask its creator. “I’m in the influence game,” says Donald Glover in a self-conducted piece with Interview Magazine. “And I think my world is better than most people’s. So I’m trying to make… people believe in my world.” ‘Atlanta’s’ Season 3 debut is a reminder of Glover and the company’s commitment to cultivating an experience of the world, not stringing along viewers with binge-era tactics. Funny, weird, scary, sad: the world of Donald Glover is incorrigibly multigenre, impossible to nail down. Perhaps it’s a reminder of the complexity of the Black experience, that everyone is their own individual. Or just a reflection of the show’s creative architect, the boundaryless Glover. But As long as two episodes exist in a world that looks and feels like ‘Atlanta’, it’s ‘Atlanta.’ “It’s our point of view,” Glover reiterates in another interview with Variety. “‘Atlanta’ is a state of mind.”
‘Atlanta’ purposely upsets your expectations for how a show should look and feel. It makes you choose to return, not because you’re dying to know what happens to your favorite character, but because the last episode was so truly and uniquely good that it would be a disservice to yourself to not.
Darius, while largely laconic, speaks with an almost meta-awareness when at all. We want to dismiss his whimsicality as silly, but we can’t help but find wisdom sometimes. When Van finds the crinkled address in her coat pocket, the one that would take them both on a meaningful adventure, Darius speaks with clarity and conviction: “Oh, I know what this is. You have to follow it. It’s Destiny.” It’s enough to convince Van. Maybe it should be enough to convince us, too.
Stanfield’s next project, ‘Haunted Mansion,’ is set to be released in early 2023, while Beetz will be reprising her role as Amber Bennett in Season 2 of Amazon Prime’s ‘Invincible.’ Meanwhile, Donald Glover can next be seen on his upcoming series ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ alongside Maya Erskine of ‘PEN15’ and developing a new show with Malia Obama in the writer’s room.
Cast: Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, LaKeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz, Khris Davis, RJ Walker, Harold House Moore, Matthew Barnes, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Cranston Johnson, Griffin Freeman, Derrick Haywood, Brandon Hirsch, Diane Sellers
By Patrick Lynott
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Patrick Lynott is a writer and screenwriter. He cares about Cinema. He cares about meaningful stories. And he cares about preserving and elevating things that people work long and hard on.Despite the incessant barrage of “content” vying for his (and everyone’s) attention, he believes it’s never been more important to pedestalize labors of real art across from a spectrum of voices. The Hollywood Insider is one of the few networks committed to doing this through substantive coverage of quality entertainment. The future of good Cinema and healthy culture relies on outlets and people willing to champion those values. Here’s to that future.